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Five New Works Added at Museum of Contemporary Art

Five new works of art, from the daunting to the haunting, entered the collection of the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art last year, courtesy of the Contemporary Collectors Fund. All five are currently on view at the museum (through Feb. 10) in what proves to be an instructive, though somewhat frustrating installation.

The new acquisitions are mounted among alternate choices that were not purchased, as well as paintings and sculpture already belonging to the museum’s collection. With the help of wall labels or a brochure, the implicit connections between the newly acquired and older works could have been made explicit, and the seemingly scattered and arbitrary installation might have assumed some coherence. Instead, the display roams through the art of the past few decades, allowing for notable, even remarkable pauses, but providing no punctuating clues to help comprehend them.

The Contemporary Collectors, a museum support group whose dues pay for the purchase of at least one new work a year, have proved their value to the SDMCA in the past with such acquisitions as Tony Cragg’s “Dying Slave,” a noble image fashioned from fragments of the most ignoble material, plastic. This year’s purchases again confirm the group’s importance in building the collection, though the five new works are not equally inspiring.

This year’s choices favor the cool and conceptual, which comes as no surprise, since the museum has never been much of a haven for art of a passionate, sensual bent. The collection’s minimal and hard-edge paintings on view now help set the stage for the recent purchases.

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The coolness of this year’s crop is also indicative of the temperament of much recent American art. All of the artists represented here are young--only one is over 40--and all of them, whether working in paint, photography or video, appeal to the mind at least as much as to the senses.

Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler’s sculptural installation, “Leaf Peeping,” for instance, takes as its subject the transformation of a sensory experience into an intellectual one. In 31 paint-filled jars placed on individual shelves across a long wall, the artists have attempted to evoke the colors and patterns of trees in autumn. The abbreviated, pseudo-scientific approach backfires, however, for it offers the mind only a fraction of what the original source offers the entire body.

Deborah Oropallo’s painting, “Heaving Line,” also deals with communicating an impression or piece of information in two different ways. Across the canvas she gives the written definition of a heaving line--a knotted rope used for water rescues--and overlayed the words with a painted image of the rope itself. In an interesting act of self-subversion, Oropallo’s written description is partially obliterated by the overlay of streaks of paint and the image of the rope. What reveals also conceals, and vice versa.

The most daunting of these emotionless works is Donald Lipski’s “Waterlilies 35.” One of a series, the sculpture resembles a diamond-shaped glass inner tube, fastened by metal clamps and containing bleached water (as a preservative) and sinuous strands of dune grass. In other versions, Lipski fills the variously shaped containers with such mundane objects as rubber bands or tomatoes, or with such personal effects as some I.V. tubing that was used by his father.

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The title of the work refers, poetically, to the well-known series of paintings by the same name by the French Impressionist Claude Monet. In Lipski’s work, as in Monet’s, the subtle effects of time on matter are noted, for the contents of these enclosures dissolve, decay and change as the works age. This is as lyrical as Lipski’s work gets, however. For the most part, it is simply an odd and clumsy form.

The most provocative of this year’s purchases by the Contemporary Collectors are a video sculpture by Alan Rath and a photograph by Jana Sterbak.

In Rath’s “Wave,” five small but wide video monitors are mounted in a row, their casings and cords unceremoniously exposed. A single, yellow-tinted hand appears on each screen, and during the 15 to 20 minute cycle of images, the wrist rotates to reveal the hand in profile, palm slightly up and facing down. At times the hands act independently, choppily changing position in a syncopated rhythm. Then, in unison, all five collaborate to evoke the image of smooth, continuous, wave-like motion.

Taking his cue from the 19th-Century photographer Eadweard Muybridge, whose pioneering studies of animal and human locomotion added innumerable new sights to our visual vocabulary, Rath gives a familiar move an unfamiliar face. He dissects continuous movement into discrete, discontinuous parts then reassembles them, calling attention to the multifarious ways that a single subject can be perceived. That his subject (the human hand) and his medium (electronic video) are at opposite ends of the labor chain is no coincidence. In the end, Rath’s work is a captivating ode to both manual and mechanical creation.

At nearly seven feet tall, Sterbak’s black and white photograph, “Generic Man,” has tremendous physical and psychological presence. The photograph shows a man’s head and shoulders, from the back. The man wears black and his head is shaved; at the nape of his neck is an imprinted bar code. In its stark realism and massive scale, Sterbak’s photograph relates to much new photography, especially from Germany. But Sterbak, who was born in Czechoslovakia and has lived in Canada since a teen-ager, imbues her work with a humanism and pathos that is absent from the equally imposing German work. “Generic Man” symbolizes loss of identity but in such a graphically striking way as to suggest its being stripped by totalitarian oppression. The photograph, like Sterbak’s installations and sculpture, vibrates with quiet pain, brought on by the politics of power.

Mounting these new acquisitions among alternate choices and works already in the collection is an instructive enterprise. It could be even more so with the help of wall labels or a brochure to make implicit connections explicit and to lend coherence to what otherwise appears scattered and arbitrary.


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